Thursday, 23 February 2012

Terms of reference

A few years back, I was approached by our then corps officer to ask me if I would take the Deputy Songster Leader's job. I told him that to me, the songsters were the most important of our musical sections, because it's the singing of words that convey scriptural truth and develop relationships with Christ, that matter most.

Watch the clip, and afterwards I want you to tell me what went through your head.

OK, so what did you think of?

Did you immediately anticipate the 'conducting' at the end?

Did you think 'I knew I'd seen Carson the butler somewhere before!'?

Does Pete Postlethwaite's character remind you of someone?

Did you think of God?

No, it's not one of those "I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sounds awfully like a giraffe" tales. But this week I played this at an Army band practice. The following is nothing to do with my inability to double-tongue, I promise you!

" must be careful not to over-emphasise its importance [SA band music] or come into bondage to it. Music, in itself, has neither a moral, nor a religious character. This can only be imparted to it by the thoughts or feelings of the soul when under its power. That is to say, if music is to have any holy, any Divine influence on the hearts of those who listen, it must be associated with holy feelings and with Divine thoughts. It is this that makes good singing more important to us than the grandest music the Band can play, unless accompanied by the singing of words calculated to carry home its appeal to our hearts." 
William Booth, March 1900.

Army music, nay, religious music, is inherently referential. Big Grandad has a theory that music has the capability to convey divine inspiration without it, but I believe that even in such circumstances, a response is invoked not just by the music but by some other coincident stimulus.

Rossini was a fine composer. But the final movement from his 'William Tell Overture' does not have any divine influence over me, not least because it is not associated with any religious words, to my knowledge.

In fact, the only words I can think of were Big Grandad singing "To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump!" on the way to the council 'tip' when I was a child, and words for a double glazing advert a couple of decades back, which referred, through the basses, to not having to pay 'until they put your windows in'!

I lost count in my youth of the number of times the corps band would play, at the open air, what they considered to be 'God's love is as high as the heavens'. The people in the street, only hearing the tune (because nobody was singing much, and only a small handful of non-bandsmen turned out to the open air), were simply listening to 'My bonnie lies over the ocean', which is rather light on the Gospel, if we're brutally honest.

'In tune with thy divinity', without the words? Same problem. Instead of the deputy bandmaster out of 'Brassed Off' ('It's a b****y Euphonium!') I am now thinking of 'Oh Danny Boy' - and this particular incarnation (if you cheated, you will need to go back and stop 'Grimley Colliery Band' first, unless you are now picturing them outside the hospital in their miner's lamps)

For this reason, except where the original was religious (more of which another time), I am not at all keen on the classical transcriptions in the Army books, which were, in the days of tighter musical stringency, a ruse to allow Army bands to play 'outside' classics purely because a Salvationist composer had arranged them. Dean Goffin was a master of his craft, but regurgitated Rossini doesn't give me the shivers like his Christian works do.

These muddled tune and words combinations have even got to the stage where in some cases, only Army folk know the tune at all. 'Storm the forts of darkness' was a drinking song when, on 26 February 1884, Captain Robert Johnson first sang his new 'song' in Bristol. Like most drinking songs from 128 years ago, it has long been forgotten. Did I enjoy playing it on the march back to the hall on Sunday? You bet. It means something to me.* Did it convey scriptural truth to anyone listening who wasn't in a uniform on Sunday morning? I'll wager not, though in fairness, 'Onward Christian Soldiers' wouldn't be much better known by the average Joe in the street nowadays. It's a strong tune to march to and simply draw attention - which is arguably a primary function of any band on the march.

So we see the proof that music has to have meaning to people, and it has to convey a meaning consistent with our evangelistic aims - and we have the proof, too, that some music that has other meanings (or none) has to be used judiciously.

When words and music combine, the effect, as Booth noted all those years ago, can be stupendous. I am primarily a brass player because I am a Salvationist, and that's what our denomination does. I don't play for any other purpose, neither have I any real interest in doing so. Outside the Army repertoire, I listen mostly to Handel, Bach, and their contemporaries. But, in common with many like me, and many who are not players but who love Army music, there are moments in Army band pieces which mean a lot to many people; I've spoken about this before.

Sat here this morning I think of the piece which accompanied my Christmas video message to you - Eric Ball's 'The Kingdom Triumphant'. The moment in the final recital of the tune, at the second stanza where the Soprano Cornet suddenly soars up an octave, has the power to move me to tears - but, with due respect to both Eric Ball and Soprano players everywhere, only in conjunction with  Wesley's fine words - "Saviour, take the the power and glory, Claim the kingdom for thine own; Hallelujah! Everlasting God, come down!"

I think unsurprisingly, I will never get to the end of 'William Tell' feeling quite the same sense of spiritual connectivity. Musically, one man's meat is another man's poison, but that's not the message of the Gospel.

Perhaps the test of any ecclesiastically-deployed music is to ask:

"Will they see what we see?"

"Do we see Jesus?"

And to prove I'm not immune...

If you ask me what is my favourite Army march, on any given day you might get a slightly different list, but headed by Erik Leidzen's festival march, 'Steadily Onward'.

Could I sing any words to any part of it? No. Do I even know if there are any, or where I could find them? Without the score notes, no again.

We'll have to pick up that dilemma another time!

Love from Daddy

* I remember the then Captain Russell Wyles preaching on 'Storm the forts' at a West Midlands divisional youth councils on it back in the nineties.

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